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THE BELL JAR - CHAPTER SUMMARY AND ANALYSIS
Esther is on a blind date with a man named Cal. Her friend Jody set her up with him. He says, "Of course his mother killed him." Heís referring to a play in which a young man finds out he has a brain disease and his mother is debating whether to kill him. Cal thinks she did it and Esther thinks she didnít. They are lying on beach towels "on a mucky beach across the swamps from Lynn." Jody and Mark are swimming. Jody had told Esther she would like Cal and Esther wonders if she would have when she had been her old self. Esther wonders if her mother had called Jody to ask her out. At first she didnít want to go because she thought Jody would notice the change in her, but Jody didnít seem to. They cook hot dogs on the beach and Esther watches the others carefully to see how to do it right and then secretly buries hers in the sand. Esther only remembers the play because it had a mad person in it. She asks Cal if he were going to kill someone how would he do it. He answers that he would use a gun. Esther is disappointed. She has no chance of getting hold of a gun. He tells her he would use his fatherís shotgun. She asks if his father lives near Boston. He doesnít.
Jody and Mark come back from swimming and Esther decides to go for a swim. She feels more and more nervous around Jody, Mark, and Cal. She fears breaking her reserve and telling them about how she canít read or write, and hasnít slept for a full month. She walks toward the water and thinks drowning would be the easiest way to die and burning the worst. Cal comes to join her. She suggests they swim out to a rock far out in the water. He thinks itís too far, but she dares him. They begin to swim. Finally Cal turns back. She decides to swim until she is exhausted and them drown. She repeats to herself: "I am I am I am."
She had tried to hang herself that morning. She tried to use the cord of her motherís bathrobe. As soon as her mother left for work, she tied a knot in it and put it around her neck. Then she tried to find a place to attach the rope. The house has no place from which to hang a rope. She remembers her grandmotherís old house. It had been full of beams. After a long time of looking, she sat on the edge of her motherís bed and tried to pull the cord tight. Each time she got it tight, she would lose her nerve. She realized that her body had tricks for staying alive. She thinks, "if I had the whole say, I would be dead in a flash." She decided she would have to ambush her body or it would trap her "in its stupid cage for fifty years without any sense at all." She worries that if she stays alive, people will find out her mind is gone and would put her in an asylum. She feels like her case is incurable. She has been reading abnormal psychology books. Her symptoms fit the worst cases. She thinks perhaps she should give up and turn herself over to the doctors. Then she remembers "Doctor Gordon and his private shock machine." She knows that once she is locked up, they would be able to shock her any time they wanted to. She thinks her family and friends might visit her at first, but later would forget about her. Her family would be poor, spending all their money on her cure. When their money was used up, she would be moved to a state hospital "with hundreds of people like me, in a big cage in the basement."
She watches as Cal gets out of the water. He and the other people on the beach look like worms. She realizes she shouldnít swim to the rock because she would just climb on it and save herself. She stops swimming. She dives, but before she knows it, she is back up to the surface. She is floating without effort. She turns back toward shore feeling beaten in the effort.
She is working as a volunteer in a hospital carrying flowers to women on the maternity ward. She feels silly and superfluous. Her mother says the cure for thinking too much about oneself is to help somebody else. Teresa had arranged the volunteer job for her. She wanted to be sent to a ward with gruesome cases "who would see through my numb, dumb face to how I meant well, and be grateful." Instead, they had sent her to maternity. She is given a tray of vases full of flowers. She notices some of the flowers are looking old, so she decides to rearrange the flowers, throwing out the old ones. When she tries to deliver the flowers, the women raise an uproar when they see that their flowers are gone or out of order. Esther runs out of the door, throwing her green volunteerís apron away as she goes.
Esther visits the graveyard where her fatherís grave is. She thinks about familyís changes in religious denominations. She has considered recently the idea that she should become a Catholic so she could go to a priest and be persuaded out of killing herself. She also realizes one of the problems is that no church takes up a personís whole life. After church, she would still have to live in the world. She wondered how long she would have to be a Catholic before she could become a nun. Her mother had laughed at her question and told her she would have to know all the catechisms and believe in all of them. She still thinks about going to some Boston priest and saying, "O Father, help me." These thoughts had occurred to her before people had started looking at her funny. She thinks the Catholics probably wonít take crazy nuns.
As she walks through the gates of the cemetery, she thinks of how odd it is that since her father died, none of the family had visited him. Her mother had not let them come to the funeral thinking they were too young. Since he had died in the hospital, his death has always seemed unreal to Esther. She has a strong urge to pay her father back for such a long absence. She wants to tend his grave. She had been her fatherís favorite. She thinks, "It seemed fitting that I should take on the mourning my mother had never bothered with." She wonders what it would have been life had her father not died. He would have taught her about his specialty, insects, he would have taught her German and Greek and Latin, and maybe she would be a Lutheran like he was.
She searches the modern part of the graveyard where the stones are all dated in the 1940s. The stones there are crude and cheap. It is drizzling and she is very depressed: "I couldnít find my father anywhere." She is wearing a raincoat she had purchased in town earlier. She had not had the money to buy an umbrella. Her fund is running out and she has decided that when it is completely depleted, she will kill herself. She had spent the last of her money on the raincoat. Finally she sees her fatherís gravestone. She arranges flowers at the head of it. She sits down in the wet grass and cries very hard. She remembers she had never cried for her fatherís death. Her mother had not cried. She had just smiled and said it was a blessing that he hadnít had a long sickness or painful death. Esther "laid [her] face to the smooth face of the marble and howled [her] loss into the cold salt rain."
She is back home and has a plan. As soon as she hears her motherís car pull away, she gets dressed and puts on the raincoat. Itís still damp from the day before at the graveyard. She goes downstairs and writes on an envelop that she is going for a long walk. She goes back upstairs and takes the pills out of the strongbox. There are fifty pills there. Her mother has been doling them out to her night by night. She puts everything back where it will look undisturbed. She takes the pills and a tall glass of water to the cellar. There is a hole in the wall down there. She removes the logs that block the entrance of the hole and climbs in. Then, she covers the hole back up with the logs and crawls to the farthest wall. She takes the pills one by one. As she reaches the bottom of the bottle, she starts seeing red and blue lights flashing. She lies down: "The silence drew off, baring the pebbles and shells and all the tatty wreckage of my life. Then, at the rim of vision, it gathered itself, and in one sweeping tide, rushed me to sleep."
In this chapter, Esther seriously attempts suicide. It is obviously unsuccessful since we are reading an after-the-fact account written by the narrator herself. She has considered many forms of suicide: jumping from a tall building, slitting her wrists, shooting herself, drowning herself, and hanging herself. Now she is using the sleeping pills that have not worked effectively to get her to fall asleep. She seems to have worked out the plan very carefully and she performs each step deliberately.
The build up to the suicide comprises the bulk of this chapter. Her dissociation with her old self indicates she is going through a radical change. She tries to see things from both positions, that of her present self and her past self. For instance, Jody tells her she will like Cal. She doesnít, but she wonders if her old self would have liked him.
Even by this late point, Esther is still looking for someone to see her really. She hopes upon getting a job as a volunteer that she will get very sick people who will be able to see her for her real self. Once again, she is thwarted.